SAN DIEGO — Shelton Mitchell and Gabe DeVoe led Clemson into the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 21 years.
The Tigers are dancing into the weekend. The No. 12 seeds are all gone.
Mitchell scored a season-high 23 points, DeVoe had 22 and Clemson beat New Mexico State 79-68 on Friday night, closing out a perfect opening round for No. 5 seeds.
The 5-12 line is usually one of the top spots for NCAA upsets, but Clemson (24-9) shot 56 percent from the field while advancing out of the first round for the first time since 1997. It was the Tigers’ first win in the tourney since the First Four in 2011.
“We weren’t surprised at all by what we saw and I wasn’t surprised by how well our players played,” coach Brad Brownell said.
Clemson was nearly flawless at the offensive end against the WAC champions, one of the better defensive teams in the country. Marcquise Reed added 15 points as nearly everyone had a good night shooting for Clemson. Mitchell made 8 of 13 shots, while DeVoe hit 10 of 15 attempts. During one stretch of the first half, the Tigers made 9 of 11 shots.
It was an impressive showing for the Tigers after they stumbled over the final weeks of the regular season adjusting to the loss of Dante Grantham to a season-ending knee injury. They were just 7-6 after Grantham was injured.
With shooting like that, the Tigers are capable of beating anyone.
“The rim wasn’t unkind to them. They shredded us,” New Mexico State coach Chris Jans said.
It was the first time Clemson made more than half of its shots since a 53-percent performance against North Carolina State early in ACC play. The Tigers had failed to shoot at least 40 percent in four games after Grantham was injured — which made the hot shooting against New Mexico State so surprising.
New Mexico State had rolled through the WAC with the best scoring defense in the conference, giving up 63.8 points per game, but its pressure defense backfired against the Tigers. Clemson’s guards were able to beat the Aggies’ defenders off the dribble and finish when they got to the rim.
“We knew we had to be aggressive with the ball and be strong with it,” Mitchell said. “They are a feisty team, so really just playing strong at all times on offense.”
Zach Lofton led New Mexico State (28-6) with 29 points and Jemerrio Jones had 13 points and 14 rebounds, but the Aggies had too many inconsistent stretches while the Tigers were so good at the offensive end.
“Their guards really hurt us,” Jans said. “We knew they were good. It’s well documented how good they are. … They were a load. They were hard to handle.”
New Mexico State had one flurry midway through the second half, creating at least some concern for Clemson. Down 64-49, the Aggies went on a 13-4 run, closing to 68-62 on Jones’ rebound basket with 5:55 left. Mitchell answered with a 3 late in the shot clock and after a pair of empty trips, Mitchell hit a pair of free throws and added another basket to push the lead back to 13.
“We’ve been in that position before. We’ve come back from deficits like that. We couldn’t get that big stop and score that we needed,” Lofton said.
New Mexico State: The Aggies have made the tournament seven of the past nine seasons, but are still looking for their first tournament win since 1993 — a victory over Nebraska that was later vacated. The last tournament victory for New Mexico State that counted came in 1970 when the Aggies reached the Final Four.
Clemson: The Tigers shot just 42.5 percent during ACC play and topped 50 percent just once against conference foes. But during non-conference play, the Tigers had four games of shooting 55 percent or better, including a season-best 61 percent against Texas Southern.
New Mexico State: The Aggies are expected to contend in the WAC again next season with a solid core of players returning and a couple of transfers who sat out this season.
Clemson: The Tigers will face another team still overcoming a key injury when they face No. 4 seed Auburn in the second round on Sunday.